The Air Force’s Religious Test (Updated)

Via Hot Air, Eugene Volokh asks, “Should atheists who refuse to say ‘so help me God’ be excluded from the Air Force?”

Air Force Instruction 36-2606 spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, which all airmen must take when they enlist or reenlist and ends with “so help me God.” The old version of that AFI included an exception: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.”

That language was dropped in an Oct. 30, 2013, update to the AFI. The relevant section of that AFI now only lists the active-duty oath of enlistment, without giving airmen any option to choose not to swear an oath to a deity.

My comment at Hot Air:

Although I’m an atheist, I have no use for perpetually-aggrieved Religion Of No Religion activists. None. Zero. The overwhelming majority of the time, I find myself defending the faith community against secular busybodies trying to drive religion (if not believers themselves) from the public square.

This, however, is an entirely different matter. (Well, it’s really all too similar, if you think about it–an attempt to marginalize a population based on which side of the religion fence they’re on.)

As Constitutional questions go, this is as close to a slam dunk as one is likely to encounter.

The answer to the question posed in the headline is an obvious and resounding no. And I’d bet the farm that it would be a unanimous decision, should it end up in the Supreme Court.

The only real question to me is who is the knucklehead who removed the exception language in 2013, and why? It accomplishes nothing, it creates a problem that did not exist, it’s patently unconstitutional, and it’s just plain dumb–which is probably why there hasn’t been a single coherent argument defending it, above.


Update, 9/17/14: Report: ‘So help me God’ no longer mandatory part of US Air Force enlistment oath


Update, 9/21/14: The Washington Times offers up a totally misleading (and probably outright trolling) headline to describe the reversion to the Air Force’s previous policy:


The Air Force did no such thing.

The URL indicates what presumably was a prior, more accurate headline, but a still more accurate one would have been “Air Force reinstates ‘so help me God’ opt-out to Oath”:


Update 9/21/14: If you’re not interested in clicking through to read the Volokh (although you really need to read it to know what the debate is about), here are a few facts you need to know:

First, the Constitutional verbiage:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Second, the relevant U.S. Code re “swear or affirm”:

So 10 U.S.C. § 502 expressly says that each person may swear or affirm. Likewise, 1 U.S.C. § 1 expressly says that an oath includes an affirmation. And an affirmation means precisely a pledge without reference to a supreme being. Given this context, it seems to me quite clear that “So help me God” in the statute should be read as an optional component, to be used for the great bulk of people who swear, but should be omitted for those who exercise their expressly statutorily provided option to affirm — because that’s what affirming means (omitting reference to a supreme being).


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